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Arts & Culture
Steve Metcalf has been writing about the musical life of this region, and the wider world, for more than 30 years. For 21 of those years, he was the full-time staff music critic of The Hartford Courant. During that period, via the L.A. Times/Washington Post news service, his reviews, profiles and feature stories appeared in 400 newspapers worldwide.He is also the former assistant dean and director of instrumental music at The Hartt School, where he founded and curated the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series. He is currently Director of the Presidents' College at the University of Hartford. Steve is also keyboardist emeritus of the needlessly loud rock band Duke and the Esoterics.Reach him at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

The (Still) Underachieving Grammy Awards

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Thomas Hawk vis Flickr.com
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Creative Commons
When the show is over, I am mostly depressed by the over-produced blandness of it all.

It’s wrong, I know, but I just can’t seem to quit the Grammy Awards show.

Year after year I tune in, thinking that this time the folks in charge (it’s officially run by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, or NARAS) will give us a show that truly, deeply, imaginatively honors all components of the music industry and the music profession. And year after year, when it’s over, I am mostly depressed by the synthetic, predictable, tunnel-visioned, over-produced blandness of it all.

Still, winning a Grammy still means something out there, particularly to young artists. So here’s my quick look back on Monday’s show, offered in the poignant hope that one fine day, the academy moguls might consider raising their game.

First, a Few Brickbats

Natalie Cole. On a night when, like, half the show was devoted to performers paying lengthy onstage tributes to recently departed music figures of varying stature (more on that in a moment) Natalie Cole -- by any fair measure the most significant departee of them all -- was “honored” with a brief silent video segment at the conclusion of the “In Memoriam” scroll. 

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Credit Brian via Flickr.com / Creative Commons
Natalie Cole won a total of nine Grammy Awards during her four decade career. Cole died on December 31.

This is Natalie Cole, a woman who won nine Grammys, enjoyed a dazzling four-decade career, and lays claim to one of the most successful and influential albums of the late 20th century. The Academy’s feeble stab at memorializing her was, sadly, all too forgettable. 

But honoring its elders has always been, and continues to be, a problem for the Academy, at least on the show.

You might well have missed it, but among the artists given a lifetime achievement award this year was Linda Ronstadt, another of the recording industry’s pioneering women, to say the least. Ronstadt is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and will be 70 years old in a few months.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but wouldn’t this have been the right moment for the Academy to locate a couple of minutes within its three-and-a-half-hour show to bring this ailing, beloved superstar onto the stage for some kind of celebration? For that matter, all of the lifetime inductees were given similar short shrift. As they are every year.

It’s almost quaintly futile to mention the fact that jazz and classical music -- our two putative pillars -- once again went virtually unnoticed and unremarked upon. (There are jazz and classical categories, of course, but those awards are given out in “ceremonies held earlier,” many safe hours and miles away from the televised portion.

If you're going to take a few minutes to complain about royalties, have that case be made by the artists themselves.

There was, to be honest, a near-jazz demi-moment. This consisted of a 12-year-old Indonesian boy named Joey Alexander playing a piece of his own composition on the piano. This 60-second segment, of course, got a standing ovation, because musical kids always get standing ovations. 

As Joey played, the camera panned the audience to jazz legend (and himself brand-new Lifetime Achievement winner) Herbie Hancock, who has coached the boy and who could be seen smiling and nodding. A better idea: let Hancock play the piano and pan to a shot of the kid smiling and nodding.

I don’t really know anything about Neil Portnow, the 67-year-old president of NARAS, except to say that his official bio is underwhelming. Maybe he’s a skilled executive. But in any case, if you’re going to take a few minutes in the show to complain about the measly royalties that streaming services pay the artists – a legitimate issue for sure -- for heaven’s sake, have that case be made by the artists themselves, rather than some sanctimonious, tuxedoed administrator.

A Few Bouquets

Among the several tribute segments, Stevie Wonder and the vocal ensemble Pentatonix pulled off (obviously on very short notice) a nice a cappella treatment of “That’s the Way of the World,” in honor of Earth, Wind and Fire founder Maurice White, who passed a couple of weeks ago.

And Lady Gaga's extended, production-heavy homage to David Bowie worked pretty well, all things considered. Some people seemed to be of the opinion that Lady G was the wrong choice for a Bowie segment, but really, her ability to project multiple musical personalities feels as if it owes something to Bowie anyway, and she pulled the thing off stylishly.

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Credit Jason H. Smith via Flickr.com / Creative Commons
Lady Gaga paid tribute to the late David Bowie in a performance at the 58th Grammy Awards show.

The ridiculously talented Lin-Manuel Miranda did some shameless but entertaining showing off as he rapped his acceptance speech for “Hamilton,” which was the (surprise!) winner for best musical theater album.

Finally, rapper Kendrick Lamar's fierce, relentless turn doing “Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” certainly confirmed his stature as a major, original voice. It was the evening’s truest and most significant moment by a long shot.

In fact, his appearance single-handedly made the show worth watching. And its defiantly aggressive message concerning racial injustice – and black rage -- reportedly caused some discomfort within the academy. That has to be considered a good sign. 

Reach Steve Metcalf at spmetcalf55@gmail.com

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